If you’re telling yourself ‘I can’t orgasm’, you’re not alone. It’s actually fairly common among women. Why is that, and how can it be ‘fixed’?
Joanna*, a 33-year-old accountant from Auckland, was sexually active for nine years – between ages 17 and 26 – before she had her first orgasm, despite having (fairly short-term) boyfriends and casual sex over that time.
“The fact that it didn’t happen ‘til my mid 20s made me think there was something abnormal about my lady parts,” Joanna says. She isn’t asexual. She’s attracted to men. And she enjoyed sex – just like many others do before they orgasm. “But I never ‘came right’ – sorry about the pun! I think part of the problem was that I kept thinking about how my body looked, and whether I was ‘doing things right’, rather than tuning out my thoughts and enjoying it.” Yes, she tried masturbation, but that ‘didn’t work’ either. “I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.”
Not having orgasms did, in part, stop her from getting into, or continuing, relationships. “I thought ‘No man would want a woman who can’t have an orgasm. No one could handle it being one way’.” One relationship ended because of that. “He literally said, ‘I can’t be with you if you don’t come’.” Pressure, much? Looking back now, Joanna reckons she had put too much pressure on herself to have an orgasm. Paradoxically, putting too much focus on orgasm can actually get in the way of having one.
Joanna had no idea that not having orgasms is common among women. “I actually felt embarrassed about not having orgasms. I felt like there was something really wrong with me. I felt like less of a woman – and I sort of felt like a bad feminist, because I believe in sexual freedom for women, and sex positivity.”
There’s something of a taboo about talking about orgasms, or the lack thereof. “It’s not something you drop into a casual conversation,” Joanna says. “I told some friends, and one reacted with what seemed almost like horror and pity.”
It wasn’t until Joanna was in a relationship with someone she was extremely attracted to, comfortable with – and who had good hands – that she realised what the fuss was about. “From no orgasms to multiple orgasms – who would have thought? I thanked him – genuinely – for that when we broke up.”
I Can’t Orgasm – The Orgasm Gap
Michael Castleman, a sexuality counsellor and journalist, wrote an article for Psychology Today, noting that research shows around 70 percent of women in committed relationships report orgasms during sex. With casual partners, the rate is only about 50 percent.
Another fun fact: men orgasm 95 percent of the time. That gap of 25 percent (95 percent minus 70 percent) could perhaps be called the Gender Orgasm Gap. Should this be considered an issue like the Gender Pay Gap, and perhaps have its own taskforce? Are women gradually moving towards parity in the boardroom, but not in the bedroom? (Excuse the tangent, but ‘friggin men get it easier: it’s easy to orgasm, they’re paid more, they don’t have periods, bear children, go through menopause, or feel pressure to have their hair and makeup looking on point. Rant over.)
Back to orgasms. It turns out the level of commitment in a relationship is the major factor as to whether women orgasm. That makes sense intuitively – many women feel more relaxed and less inhibited if they feel emotionally connected and comfortable. Also (and this is just my opinion), men in a committed relationship are probably more invested in helping their partner orgasm.
The Psychology Today article says psychologists and sociologists have found four variables make “modest differences” in women’s rates of orgasm. A? “Demographics. As age, education, and income increase, the likelihood of orgasm increases somewhat.” B? “Beliefs. Compared with women who embrace religious fundamentalism and traditional sex roles (woman as homemaker), those who espouse more liberal religious and social views are a little more likely to have orgasms.” C? “Relationships. As happiness with the relationship increases, women’s likelihood of orgasm increases.” Then D: “women free from sexual trauma are somewhat more likely to have orgasms”.
Other factors might include age, hormones, taking medications, lack of sexual experience, mental-health issues including stress, and feeling self-conscious about your body.
About 10 percent of women never have orgasms at all. Yes, you read that right. Never. That’s a lot of women not having orgasms. Odds are that this includes, if not you, then some of your friends.
But don’t think that a woman who doesn’t have orgasms is ‘broken’. Australian ‘sexpert’ Nadia Bodoky writes in an essay for news.com.au that “women who can’t achieve an orgasm through sex are made to feel as though it’s some ‘personal failing’ or that they’re in some way ‘broken’ – when actually, it’s men who are ‘bad at sex’.”
“A far more adept approach [than vaginal penetration] would be to engage in extended foreplay, focusing on manual stimulation and then to continue that throughout the duration of sex. Consider penetration a neat optional extra. Kind of like the free delivery you get thrown in if you spend enough money on your Uber Eats order.” Basically, don’t ignore the clitoris.
Where to start?
Emma Hewitt is a sex educator and content creator for Adulttoymegastore an online-only Wellington-based company that stocks more than 8000 products across 45 brands from around the world.
Emma says that she often interacts with women who have never had orgasms. “Some people mention it while asking questions over email or the phone. Sometimes it’s when we go face to face [in physical spaces]: for instance, at universities, and last week we went to the Wellington Women’s Lifestyle Expo. Every time we’re out, people come up to ask that specific question.” (Yes, often in a whisper.) “They say ‘I’ve never had an orgasm’, or ‘I’m not sure if I’ve had an orgasm but it sounds like what I feel is different to what other women feel’.” (My words not hers, but when you know, you know.) “It’s all ages – from uni students through to women in their 70s. They say ‘I know nothing about toys, what can you suggest or recommend?’.”
“We also run ‘beginner’s guide to sex toys’ workshops – you see these toys, turn them on and off, and listen to us talk about what you can do with these products. There are ‘questions and answers’ at the end for open, one-on-one chats and conversations. So, someone might want to use a product for different reasons in different ways.”
Emma also writes and hosts Adulttoymegastore’s YouTube channel. “It’s very toy specific. The series ‘Quickies’ is three minutes long, about a type of toy. The second, slightly longer series ‘Doing It’ is learning about a group of products, how to choose some and why.’”
Why am I embarrassed talking to Emma about this topic when logically I’m not prudish? “That’s been built into us, I think. I’ve been doing this work for about eight years and sometimes, depending on who I’m talking to, I suddenly feel uncomfortable. I could be having a serious conversation about it, and I’ll suddenly get the giggles.”
“I wonder if it [embarrassment] is because conversations about this are relatively new. It used to be ‘you should be able to orgasm from penetrative sex’, but actually, we now know that’s not going to happen for the majority of women.”
Emma is also host and producer of podcast The Electric Rodeo: Sex & Pleasure Explained. This podcast about sex, relationships and everything in between has 37 episodes so far. Each week, Emma delves into a new topic; for instance, ‘Making Masturbation Magic’, and ‘The Worst Sex Tips We Have Ever Heard And A Brand New Toy Range’. Emma has interviewed ‘sexperts’ including a certified sex educator who founded a sex-toy business; a Melbourne dominatrix; and a sex worker who experienced a downturn during Covid. Emma also answers common sex questions (and check out our adult toy review series, I’ll Have What She’s Having here!)
“I thought 90 percent of my listeners would be women, but it’s about 50/50. Male listeners have emailed me saying they’re getting tips to use with their partners. That’s nice to hear!”
Also, excuse this tangent, but we can’t not include the fact that Emma spoke with New York-based sex educator and instructor Lola Jean. “She’s the world record-holder for squirting.” Yes, you read that right. And yes, the mind boggles when it comes to the logistics; it was a one-minute timeframe, and her hand was the only assistant. Officially, she’s “World Record Holder for Volume Squirting (Solo): 1250mL (25 seconds)”.
We don’t have to be as, well, ambitious as Lola Jean. But get in touch with Emma, and she can suggest a personalised starter toy. As for Joanna, she has a great new vibrator, and is making up for lost time, both with her partner and without. And when it doesn’t happen for her? That’s fine too.